Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Praise and a few gripes for PGR4

I have expanded my videogame collection with the spoils of holiday giving and one of the games I've acquired is Project Gotham Racing 4. The only other game I've played in the PGR series is PGR2 on the original Xbox, and I loved it. It hit the sweet spot between an arcade-style racer and a driving simulator, with an excellent online component to race against your friends.

PGR4 is much the same, though I have to say it is more of a challenge than PGR2. This is due a bit to the more technical nature of the game, leaning more toward a realistic simulation, but it's mainly due to the toughness of the artificial intelligence of your bot opponents. If you don't get out in front early in a race, it's nearly impossible to catch up to first place. I'll be spending much more time honing my driving techniques this time out.

One of my gripes with the single-player portion of PGR4 isn't even with the gameplay, it's with the integration of your friends' stats via Xbox Live -- it hardly exists. In the "arcade" mode where you're just competing for various medals in different types of races you will see a leaderboard after completing an event that shows you where you rank among your friends, but that's it. That's the only time you will see the leaderboard and as far as I can tell, you can't bring it back up just to look and compare. Lame. That's a huge part of the competitive fun of racing games is competing against your friends' times on the same tracks.

In the "career" mode, such friend comparison simply isn't there. Maybe there are too many variables to factor in with all of the choices one can make throughout the course of one's career, but I don't see why the game couldn't at least let you see how your friends are doing.

I played my first online matches this past weekend and they were just as fun as the online races in PGR2, just much prettier graphically. I have to say, though, the interface and menu navigation for setting up the custom races is clumsy and leaves a lot to be desired. Much of the menu choices are text-based with little explanation and the menu choices are all nested inside of each other. It may be a case of sacrificing ease of use for a "clutter-free" onscreen menu appearance.

Even the online web component of PGR4, pgrnations.com, suffers from a lack of ability to compare your stats with your friends'. You can do it, but not without seriously digging down into the "Leaderboards" link, and even then, you are relegated to nondescriptive text-based choices that provide so little information they are useless, particularly out of the context of the game.

I want to see these comparisons when I'm online in the game interface so I can look at a leaderboard for a particular track before I race it, see where my friends placed, and try to beat them. The leaderboard should also be associated with a graphical representation of the proper map with a title, too, not just "Event 1 Street Race."

Another gripe is with the "garage" component of the game. It apparently lets you view vehicles and motorcycles available to you in your garage, but I didn't see all of the cars I'd been using in my garage, and of the cars and bikes you see, you seem only to be able to take pictures of them to upload to pgrnations.com. Huh? I was so bored, here's the picture I took and uploaded:
I couldn't even open the dumpster or kick it or anything. But that's not the worst part about the "garage." In one of the garages you can walk up to and play an upright arcade machine version of Geometry Wars: Waves. I did this and it was a cool variation on the regular Geometry Wars, but when you've had enough and want to go back to PGR4 (even selecting "Back to PGR4" on the menu) it spits you totally out of the entire game as if you rebooted your console. What? I wanted to go back to the garage and walk around taking pictures!

I don't mean to sound so negative about this game. It does provide a great driving experience while you're actually playing, and the online component when you are actually racing works very well. The shift toward a more technical simulation may warrant experiencing this game with a steering wheel. I've read many find this significantly enhances the feel and experience of driving in this and other driving games. Also, one creative addition to PGR4 is the ability to use motorcycles instead of cars. You still race against cars and other motorcycles and it's an interesting addition with a whole different feel and skillset to learn.

I did finally win a few Championship series races in the Amateur category tonight, so I just have to keep at it and keep practicing.

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